There are a lot of artists in this town who make work constantly but quietly. Because they’re not affiliated with a large organization, you don’t notice them. Then, suddenly, the quiet artists put on shows of work ranging across years, and you wonder where they’ve been all that time.
Jim Lieberthal is one such artist. His FootHolds Project concert includes work from 1984 to 2007, as well as a new work created for him by Germaul Barnes. At its best, Lieberthal’s choreography is quirky, interesting, built around vignette and gesture rather than story and long dance phrase. Lieberthal’s work is full of animals and characters: in 1984’s “FlashCard Menagerie,” Bernard Brown lies on his side, finning his feet elaborately; later he sneaks, slump-shouldered, around the stage. In a harlequin costume, he’s a human fly or an architectural figure. Lieberthal’s good, too, at the short drama, at getting it right in a moment. The second section of “FlashCard” is the Ariel-protagonist’s agony, but it’s brief (perhaps thirty seconds), ending in a sudden fall and blackout. What else do we need?
Lieberthal’s premiere, “Cri de Coeur,” shows the same expertise in moments. Blackouts highlight action, the lights falling and lifting again suddenly; dancers enter unexpectedly, a man dragging a woman onstage. Later, the woman (Debra McGee Weatherup) springs up from the floor in a sudden fierce embrace, her legs around the man’s waist; after a blackout, they’re revealed in the same position, but she’s already fallen a little away; a second blackout and lights up finds her on the floor. In “Cri de Coeur,” Lieberthal gives a good sense of the interruptedness of modern life. The dancers—a lot of them, seemingly more than necessary—come and go like traffic, their connections intense but fleeting.
Lieberthal’s work gets muddier when he mixes ballet with his modern dance. Where his modern’s sharp and alert, his ballet’s unfocused and at times even unmusical. It’s clear that he likes the gorgeous lines of ballet, but the lines don’t feel earned.
Barnes’s work for Lieberthal, “Doing or Not,” has Lieberthal pouncing and posing around stage while dramatically reciting an Ogden Nash poem about sins of commission versus sins of omission. For most dancers, this would not work. But Lieberthal is that rare person who seems born for the stage in all respects. His Gumby-body, his malleable face (from innocent to tempter in 0.3 seconds), his absolute confidence untainted by vanity or self-consciousness—he is a kick to watch, and it’s too bad we don’t see more of him in this concert.
Lieberthal’s brilliance as a performer gives a clue to his choreography: he’s a dancer’s choreographer. His dancers range from the forceful, mature Weatherup to the ballerina Julia Tehven to livewire Bernard Brown to Kelly Radermacher, with her black hole-dense presence, to the young swan Alexandra Baldwin, and more. It’s clear Lieberthal loves them all. What finally holds about this concert, when the bows are being taken, is the heart of people like Lieberthal and his dancers. Dance is so hard. These dancers practice four to seven days a week, two to six hours a day, and all they get is one weekend of light, three evenings of our applause. (The pay is minimal, if in fact there is pay at all.) We, on the other hand, just walk in and, for a small sum, soak up all this effort of theirs so easily. We are living on their generosity.
The Footholds Project runs through July 28.